When is enough too much? That’s the question raised by Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life,” an oversized biography of the man who gave the Beatles their bite.
Beginning well before his birth -- the opening sequence describes another John Lennon, the singer’s paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Liverpool to New York in the 1880s and became a touring musician, performing in blackface with Andrew Roberton’s Colored Operatic Kentucky Minstrels -- and ending with the gunshots that killed him, on Dec. 8, 1980, this is a panoramic effort, exhaustively detailed and researched.
If biography were an art of collection, Norman’s book would be a stately portrait, obsessively completist, every brush stroke in place. But biography is an art of interpretation, and too often this book lacks a sense of context -- not just in regard to music, but also to the way that, perhaps more for Lennon than any other figure of his moment, pop culture and history came to intersect.
Who was Lennon really, after all? Yes, he was a rock star, but that’s too simple, for rock stars as we currently conceive of them didn’t exist when he came along. In this, as in so much else, the Beatles created the template from which an industry would spring.
“What captivated and fascinated Britain in late 1963,” Norman writes about the early bloom of Beatlemania, “was not just a pop group more extraordinarily and unstoppably successful than any before. It was the new definition of ‘pop group’ they had created, something closer to the Marx Brothers than any forerunners like the Blue Caps or Shadows -- a gang laughingly on the run from overblown adulation and desire, a brotherhood that in the brightest glare of publicity still kept its own intriguing secrets, the ultimate impenetrable clique.”
That’s a great description, and it establishes the key conundrum of the Beatles -- the tension between public image and private life. They spoke to us, but at a distance. Their emergence not only helped usher in the era of pop culture, it changed society at the broadest level by redefining celebrity as a potent social force.
In the five years from 1963 to 1968, the band went from infectious to insurrectionary, from singing about love to singing about social change. This was partly a function of the times, but what’s interesting is the way they employed similar strategies in the service of divergent ends.
There’s little difference between the media reaction to the Beatles’ first visit to America, in February 1964 (“a cultural mission that became an almost royal progress”), and the response to Lennon’s 1969 “bed-ins” with Yoko Ono; what changed was his engagement, the recognition that he could “use” celebrity to make a point. “I noticed this quality he had of standing outside every situation and noting the vulnerabilities of everyone, including myself,” observed “A Hard Day’s Night” director Richard Lester. “He was always watching.”
In some sense, of course, he had no choice, for whatever else they were, the Beatles were an insatiable industry; even their dissolution was recorded for the cameras and distributed to the public in the movie “Let It Be.”
This was the same public that Lennon described to Jann Wenner, in his famous 1970 interview for Rolling Stone, as “just sucking us to death.” “That dream is over,” he said, dismissing both the band, now broken up, and its despairing audience, “it’s just the same only I’m thirty and a lot of people have got long hair, that’s all.”
The Lennon who emerges from these statements is an angry figure: wary, self-protective, razor-sharp and more than a little paranoid. That’s also the Lennon who emerges from Norman’s biography, so much so that Ono, who felt Norman was being “mean to John,” withdrew her planned endorsement of the book.
And yet, one wonders what Ono was surprised by, since Norman has been writing about Lennon and the Beatles for 40 years. A first-generation British rock critic, he is the author of the 1981 book “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation,” which remains the definitive group biography; clearly, he admires Lennon but wants to portray him as he was.
This is what made “Shout!” so fascinating, its air of four-dimensional history, the idea that for all we thought we knew about the Beatles, there was another story to be told. Here, though, Norman’s work lacks that sense of connection, offering no overarching point of view.
Of Lennon’s early 1970s feud with Paul McCartney, we get a series of facts -- Lennon’s vicious “How Do You Sleep?” was written in response to a perceived put-down in McCartney’s “Too Many People"; friends such as Ringo Starr warned him that, in Norman’s words, “he was going way too far.” What we don’t get is a sense of how this played in the culture, how the split between Lennon and McCartney mirrored a wider split between freak and straight.
Even when it comes to the music, Norman can’t always find the proper context. Discussing the song “God,” from Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo album, “Plastic Ono Band,” he calls the final lines -- “And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on. The dream is over” -- “a belated farewell to the world’s Beatlemaniacs,” when in fact they are a declaration of independence from everything (“I don’t believe in Beatles”) he has decided he can do without.
It’s asking a lot, of course, to expect people to read an 800-page book about a rock star -- even this rock star. But the request is worth making if you deliver the goods.
For many of us, Lennon was a role model, not just in regard to music or politics but how to live your life. He gave us permission to stand up for our values and to strike out on our own.
His simple prescriptions (“Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “All You Need Is Love”) have become secular hymns, although for me, his defining act remains the 1975 decision to put his career on hold and become a stay-at-home dad.
Norman deals with all this, although he rushes the post-Beatles material, giving barely 150 pages to the last 10 years of Lennon’s life. But more to the point, he doesn’t tell us why any of it was important, what his subject meant to the world.
“We were just a band that made it very, very big, that’s all,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. I love that line because it’s classic Lennon: ironic and truthful all at once.
Yet if this is the Lennon that Norman means to show us -- cheeky, opinionated, cutting -- he never quite succeeds in bringing him to life.